Tribal communities are turning to the sun to power their way to a sustainable future.
By Debra Utacia Krol
The Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory notes that, while Native land represents less than 2 percent of the total U.S. land base, it contains an estimated 5 percent of all U.S. renewable energy resources. The sun is providing carbon-free energy to meet the needs of tribes across the U.S., and solar power is a boon to tribal communities with fewer resources.
The first major tribal foray into solar energy is the Moapa Southern Paiute Solar Project. This 250-megawatt plant is the result of a partnership between the Moapa Band of Paiutes and manufacturing firm First Solar.
The solar plant, sited on 2,000 acres on the Moapa tribe’s reservation outside of Las Vegas, opened in March 2017 and generates enough electricity to power nearly 111,000 homes. After a short-period, First Solar sold the plant to Swiss-based clean energy investment firm Capital Dynamics.
The power generated by the sun keeps more than 341,000 metric tons of CO2, the gas that causes global warming, from being dumped into the atmosphere—the equivalent of removing 73,000 cars off the road.
The 311-member tribe in 2015 won a $4.3 settlement over contaminants from the coal-powered Reid Gardner Generating Station, which was near the reservation and provided no financial benefits to the tribe. The solar plant will generate millions of dollars for the Moapa and the coal plant has been closed.
In a statement, Moapa Tribal Chairman Darren Daboda said, “As a first-of-its-kind project, the Moapa Southern Paiute Solar Project signifies our role as a leader in Indian Country, creating a template for other tribes to follow. If our small tribe can accomplish this, then others can also.”
Another ground zero for a solar-powered future in Indian Country is in Nixon, Nevada, home to the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. Black Rock Solar, a foundation established by the Burning Man Festival, partnered with the tribe and NV Energy to create a “Solar City.” Nixon boasts more solar panels per person than any other town or tribal community in the United States. Some 3,127 solar panels generate 582 kilowatts of electricity, powering the local high school, tribal museum, health clinic, police station, tribal offices and the tribe’s fish hatchery.
“The savings from these projects will increase our ability to provide more services in other areas—language programs, our museum, parks and recreation and elder services,” said Mervin Wright, the then chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribal Council, said in a news release. “Those are areas we can focus on.”
In fact, until January 2017, when the state of Nevada ceased offering solar incentives, the nonprofit powered 21 tribal projects in four northern Nevada tribal communities.
In 2016, the U.S. Department of Energy released more than $9 million to support 16 facility- and community-scale energy projects in 24 tribal communities.
“The Energy Department is committed to maximizing the development and deployment of energy solutions for the benefit of American Indians and Alaska Natives,” Christopher “Chris” Deschene (Navajo), the previous director of the DOE’s Office of Indian Energy and Programs, said in a new release announcing the solar projects. “By providing tribal communities and Alaska Native villages with knowledge, skills and resources, we hope to help tribal communities harness their local indigenous renewable energy resources, reduce their energy costs, create jobs, and help implement successful strategic energy solutions.”
One tribe that benefited from the funding is the Bishop Paiute Tribe, located on the east slopes of the Sierra Nevada Range in Eastern California. “The 56 [installations] that DOE contributed funding brings the cumulative total installations from the program up to 118 systems installed on reservation homes—382 kW in total,” Brian Adkins, environmental director for the tribe, said. “We are almost 60 percent of the way toward our goal of installing 200 systems on tribal homes by 2020.”
“Solar power really helps out, means one less bill to worry about, and is a money saver that helps me take care of my family,” wrote Harlan Dewey, a Bishop Paiute tribal member, in a DOE blog. Dewey was trained by GRID Alternatives, a nonprofit that partners with tribes and other entities on solar project. In addition to being trained in installations, Dewey also helped outfit his own home with solar panels. “With the money we save from solar, I’m planning to expand on our home and do improvements. I started training with GRID at the reservation’s first project and became one of the first tribal members to support the GRID program, and I still help with installations. It makes me really happy to help my people and to share the program with other tribal members.”
“We partner with tribes in providing hands-on training and education on solar PV projects,” says Tim Willink, director of tribal programs for GRID Alternatives. “A lot of our tribal partners are looking to solar as part of gaining more control of their energy usage and bringing clean renewable energy to their communities.” Since 2010, GRID Alternatives has teamed up with 40 tribes to install solar power for nearly 500 reservation homes. In 2016 alone, GRID Alternatives trained 144 tribal members as solar panel installers on 76 projects.
GRID Alternatives recently partnered with the Chippewa Cree Tribe in Montana to install six solar electric systems on three duplex homes. “The project turned out really well,” said Trevor Standing Rock, a tribal member who manages the tribe’s energy programs. The 21 kW panels will save an estimated 27 percent for the low-income families who live in the Rocky Boy Reservation homes. Another benefit: community involvement. “A lot of community members became excited,” Standing Rock said. “There was a lot of interest and curiosity.” And, even more tribal members received valuable hands-on training in solar installations, skills that are sure to be in great demand as more tribes turn to the sun to power their communities, economies and lives.♦